Friday, 9 March 2012

The love letter - the dinosaur of the written word?

We can learn so much about social history by studying the letters of the past.  Historians the world over love to spend hours pouring over them for any clues about the individual habits and customs of their creators.  Yet a letter can reveal the contents of one's heart just as easily as the contents of one's diary.
One of my all time favourite books, is 'Love Letters - an Anthology of Passion', by Michelle Lovric. And what a treat this book is.  It's a lavishly produced epistolary hardback, complete with luxurious illustrations and covered in red and gold lettering.  Inside the reader is presented with printed love letters from scholars and writers down the ages, featuring the likes of Dylan Thomas, Robert Browning and John Keats.
But the really wonderful thing about this book is the way that the publishers have included the actual letters, written in the hand of the original writers, folding out on the page or tucked in tiny envelopes as they originally were.  How delicious to hold Keats's letter to Fanny Brawne in your hand, an exact replica.  Here is where reading becomes a truly sensual experience and, for some reason, the words are all the more poignant for that.  Each page also features small extracts from the letters of other notorieties, as diverse as Ringo Starr and Abraham Lincoln.
There is something so personal about a letter; they contain interesting facts and witty observations and intense bursts of sentiment.  Even if the author has long since departed this world, a letter can bring them before us one more time with a freshness and an immediacy that is startling in its intensity and not to be found anywhere else.
And now, with the advent of the internet, it seems that the letter is becoming the dinosaur of the written form and should be all the more cherished for that. Does anyone take the time to woo their loved ones in such a way any more?  A text, email, or dare I say a tweet, certainly cannot compare to a well crafted letter that reveals the full depth of feeling over several pages.  How many ways are there to say those three little words?  Could you exchange them for something altogether more poetic and sensual?  Surely they have been said already, and possibly by a professional word-smith who can do a much better job than you or I.

And herein lies the crux of the matter: it is the craft of writing love letters that has all but disappeared, and not the appeal of the letters themselves.  They take too long to write perhaps, and the whole rigmarole of selecting the right paper, pen and envelope, never mind the correct stamp, just turns people off.    But when so much pleasure can be produced, at really so little cost, surely it is time to excavate this old dinosaur and bring back the original social medium of the heart.

And if you needed any further proof as to the power of this now out-dated medium, let me finish by quoting just one touching letter, from this delightful collection, written by William Pitt, First Lord Chatham to his future wife, Lady Lady Hester Grenville, October 3rd, 1754:
'The tender warmth of your feeling, loving, heart has almost sweetly robbed me of the only superiority I gave myself; that of loving you more than you could love.  If you dispute this superiority, I can, I believe, forgive you.'

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